Ensenada - A Taste of Mexico
By Sue Barthelow
While in Southern California in March 2005, Bob and I drove down to Ramona, a town northeast of San Diego. One of Bob's college fraternity brothers, Gary, lives there with his wife, Gwen, and their sons. We stay in touch with them and try to visit when we can. I remember this visit as the one that got us thinking of traveling into the "real" Mexico.
Gary, Gwen, Bob and I spent a pleasant evening eating, drinking and catching up on each others' lives. As we talked, I my eyes kept returning to the Mexican tiles laid on family room floor and the Mexican objects and artwork that adorned the walls and bookshelves. Surrounded as we were, we soon turned to the subject of traveling in Mexico. When Gwen discovered that we hadn't been into Baja California, she decided we had to go there - tomorrow. Gwen and Gary assured us that, since they go there frequently, they knew their way around. They wanted to show us the ropes.
Our trip into Mexico started with a side-trip to a Mexico insurance business on the California side of the border. Gary told us that buying vehicle insurance was a necessary part of a trip over the border. He went in to buy the insurance; the rest of us queued up at the single restroom.
Back on the road, we easily crossed into Mexico and then sped through Tijuana without leaving the highway. To our right loomed the high solid fence that defined the border. The fence road the hills and ravines like a rodeo bull rider, jerking up and down seemingly without end.
I tried to imagine a man climbing over the fence, knowing it wasn't easy to conquer. I'd seen a clip on the news that filmed two men climbing over, and I remember marveling over it as I viewed those men. They threw something over the wire strung along the top and clambered over the wire before dropping to the other side. I knew from the news that the Mexicans typically didn't cross into California using their climbing skills. A good thing for them since it looked formidable.
To our left was Mexico with its hut-like houses and shacks hunkering close to the ground and providing minimal shelter. To our right was the fence. Beyond it, California strutted her stuff. As we reached the coast and headed south, I watched the fence drop from view behind us.
Ensenada is about 68 miles south of Tijuana and is connected to it by a four lane toll road. A number of villages line the coast connected by a free road. Many of these villages cater to the American tourists who crowd in for most weekends and all holidays.
Since we were there to see the sights along the way, we stayed on the free road until a little south of Rosarito. We ignored the multi-storied condominiums and the resorts, some fancy and some rustic. We passed numerous shops selling pottery, ceramic goods and metal sculptures, most of which were displayed outside on the ground. Wanting to save our buying for the trip home, we simply sat back in the truck and enjoyed the sights.
The free road ended south of Rosarito, forcing us back up onto the toll road. We wheeled our way on south, passing beautiful beaches, some with empty campgrounds. The sky was clear, and the water was a sparkling pacific blue. To our left, the scrubby hills rolled towards the shore. After a while, we rounded the last bend. Ensenada spread out in front of us, framed by its picturesque bay and the low hills that embrace it.
Southern California cruise ships favor Ensenada. Here, the ships glide right up to the pier for docking. On this day, a large ship waited at the pier while its passengers spent the day in the city experiencing a bit of Mexico.
Since it was the weekend and the weather was near perfect, we weren't the only ones who took advantage of the drive south. The curbs were filled to capacity, and we motored along many streets looking for a place to park. We finally found a spot a couple of blocks from the main shopping area.
For extra insurance, Gary approached a man who was leaning against the wall nearby and who looked rooted to the place. "Si", the man said with his hand reaching out to receive his commission. He would be happy to watch Gary's truck while we were wandering the streets. After all, that was why he was there.
It seemed like quite a racket to me, but it looked like the thing to do. And so what? Whether it helped protect your vehicle or not, why not help out with some much needed cash?
With the truck left in good hands, we worked our way up the street and into the main shopping district. Ensenada, like most tourist towns, has a large area devoted to removing the tourists' dollars from their pockets. The harbor-side streets were filled with shops that sold everything from simple trinkets to expensive clothing, jewelry, and artwork. We wandered north on Avenida Lopez Mateos, going inside those shops that intrigued us. One shop we entered sold only items made by the local Indians. I'll admit that even I, who rarely buys anything I don't need, was sorely tempted by what I saw in those shops. Some of the artwork was incredible, and the jewelry proved to be of such a wide assortment of materials and designs that anybody could easily find something to love. I could see why our friends had filled their house with all things Mexican.
Along the curbs, numerous Indian women clutched their young and hawked their wares. It looked like a hard life, and it painted a sad picture. We were told via placards on the walls not to buy from them. The city used the placards to announce that it was trying to protect these women. They told the tourists that buying from the women would encourage their husbands to mistreat them and their children by making them sell their simple wares this way.
After several hours of wandering around the shops, it was time for a drink. We ambled over to Hussong's Cantina on Avenida Ruiz to see what was happening. Squeezing our way into the crowded bar, we managed to find a table. We settled in and waited for a server to find us. Soon, the table was covered with beer bottles. A basket of peanuts in the shell sat in the center of the table. The basket got emptier as we snacked, tossing the empty peanut shells towards the floor to join the many others already underfoot.
Hussong's Cantina has been in business since 1892 and is said to have once been a watering hole for Hemingway, Steinbeck and Clark Gable. The many photos and caricatures that adorn the walls offer up proof of its many celebrity visitors. This is a typical old fashioned western saloon, swinging doors, long bar and all. Here, however, instead of provocatively clad bar maids, mariachi bands wander around entertaining the crowd. We were entranced.
Having finished our beers and become ready to quit the crowd, we headed back to the truck. After once again resisting the call of the shops, we found our way back. The truck was there, still in one piece thanks to its guardian, who was now nowhere in sight. Maybe the payoff was worth it, but we'll never really know for sure. We climbed in and headed away from the tourist scene.
Since we were all home winemakers, we drove down Avenida Miramar to our favorite kind of establishment - a winery.
Founded in 1888, the Bodegas de Santo Tomas Winery is the oldest winery in Baja California. The winery itself is located a number of miles south of the city - too far for most Ensenada tourists to travel. But they're no fools. The owners established a tasting room a short drive from the shopping area within Ensenada. They knew that the Ensenada touristas could be attracted to their tasting room as long as it was close enough. And they were right. As we can attest to from the crowd that day, many a cruise ship passenger heads to the tasting room for a quick tour and a bottle of fine wine.
However, we were looking for lunch. The building next door to the tasting room and gift shop is a historical building with an old-world ambiance. We followed Gary and Gwen through the entry doors and found ourselves in a long hallway line with open alcoves on both sides. As we wandered towards the end of the hall, we viewed the wine displays and artwork displayed in the alcoves. I could see a dinning area that spread itself out at the far end of the building. The hallway opened into a small courtyard that fronted a fine dinning establishment named La Embotelladora Viega.
Finding a table was easy, and we settled in for a late lunch. Since this was part of the winery, we ordered up a bottle of Santo Tomas and some appetizers and then sat back studying the menu. The menu was varied, and the prices were reasonable. We relaxed here, drinking and munching on our appetizers. The food arrived, and, to our delights, it was great. Now this was the way to end a day of shopping in Ensenada.
Later, outside the restaurant with our bellies full, we decided to check out the tasting room. It reminded me of the standard California tasting room. We skipped the tour, but looked around to see what they had to offer. Here at last, an Ensenada shop managed to extract money from our wallets. We strode to the truck carrying several bottles of their finest.
Back in the truck, we headed north. Our next stop was Rosarito. Many shops of various types beckoned us. Gwen had her favorites, so we visited mostly those. Leather goods, pottery, knick-knacks, items to delight the children, books, clothing. Almost everything you can think of was readily available. We wandered into an art gallery. Several pieces caught our attention. Luckily for us, we had no way to get a large painting home. We kept moving forward.
We strolled into the Rosarito Beach Hotel and Spa to check it out. A historic resort, the hotel is graciously appointed with tile-work, frescos and wrought iron. A beautiful site. We ambled through the hotel towards the beach and landed in a bar overlooking the beach and pier. We settled in with margaritas accompanied by chips with guacamole.
The sky glowed orange and then red as the sun settled itself into the ocean for the night. We watched couples on horseback ride up and down the beach along the water line. What fun. In my younger days, I'd have been right out there splashing in the surf with them. To my right, a banquet room slowly filled with locals in festive dress. Soon, the reason for their private fiesta became clear as a bride and groom entered the scene. We raised our glasses for our own toast to their future - "Salud".
Back in the truck, we scouted the shops in earnest for large pottery turtles. Gwen buys these and turns them into mosaic masterpieces that she sells at craft fairs. There didn't seem to be many available and we drove on and on scanning the shop fronts without luck. Finally, Gwen let out a yell of triumph as we all spied a set of large turtles that looked like they were crawling away from a shop on our right. Gary parked the truck, and we all scrambled out to have a look. Not exactly what she was looking for, but she said they'd do.
As she settled in for some hard bargaining, we wandered around the nearby shops. If we had driven to Southern California in our truck, there were several items we would have bought for our patio. One was a large metal sculpture of a dragon. I could imagine it standing in our entrance patio protecting us from evil doers. It would have been perfect. Then again, maybe it was a good thing we weren't in our truck. Gwen's purchase completed, we headed back to the border.
We were headed for the hardest part of our trip that day - waiting in line to get back into the US. The line of cars and trucks stretched for miles. The closer we crawled toward the crossing, the more lanes opened up. Soon we were just one of a crowd, slowly inching our way forward in a race with the turtles that sat in the bed of the truck.
Since none of the vehicles was moving faster than our turtles would have if they could, this was the perfect place for the hawkers to meander with their wares - food, clothing, hats, toys, paintings. Children, women, and men of all ages surrounded us. Whatever could be carried and sold was out there somewhere. Wandering, playing, smiling, chatting; it looked like they were all having a great time. I found myself hoping that they were. We bought a bag of the yummy Mexican treat of fried dough covered with cinnamon and sugar called churros and inched on munching away.
It was a perfect end to a perfect day.